Owners of a 23-10 record since the start of July, this week the Orioles officially played themselves into a tie for a wild card spot. (They didn’t end up playing at all yesterday due to rain, but the Brewers walked off the Rays to drop Tampa Bay into the tie.) Look! It’s real!
Think back to the preseason period. Do you remember what the Orioles’ playoff chances were back then?
Now? 50%, according to Baseball Reference. The Orioles have a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs!
What’s great about this stunning record of success is that, contrary to the cliché, not everything is clicking into place at the right time.
“For me, the reason why our record is what it is … it’s not because we’re outscoring people,” Brandon Hyde said Wednesday night. “It’s because of what we’ve done as a team defense situation.”
Hyde is right about the team having a top-10 defense, but he’s actually being a little hard on O’s hitters. Since July 1, the Orioles are hitting .256/.326/.420, around the tenth-best slash line in MLB. Their wRC+ of 111 is ninth highest, and their walk rate is twelfth. Still not Yankees or Dodgers territory, but it’s a change for an offense which was routinely bottom five in May and June.
But Hyde is right in the sense that the Orioles’ torrid July coincided with cold streaks for three of their best hitters: Cedric Mullins (who averaged .250 over the month), Ryan Mountcastle (a meager .195 average in July), and Austin Hays (who hit .202 that month).
What would the Orioles offense look like if these three were hitting, along with the rest of the lineup? A little more like what we’re seeing in August: a .284/.361/.489 slash line, with more runs created than any other AL team. A top-5 offense, in other words. Mounty, Hays and Mullins have all bounced back so far in August, and the contributions of Adley Rutschman (with a ridiculous .541 OBP in August) and Terrin Vavra (a .448 OBP over the same stretch) can’t be overstated.
Hyde also left out Orioles pitching as a contributor to their record. Overall, since July 1, Baltimore has the eleventh-most valuable staff in baseball. The bullpen continues to roll along, with the fourth-lowest 2.95 ERA in baseball, while the starters are averaging 3.99 in that stretch, exactly OK by MLB standards.
All this is to say, while the Orioles’ W-L record has been stupendous, there are areas of improvement.
One is offensive production from the bottom of the lineup: the Orioles’ 7-9 hitters are batting a collective .210, and the team is getting a miserly .190/.261/.353 slash line from the second base spot.
I know, I know, you’ve probably heard: Rougned Odor is a “glue guy” and a good clutch hitter. But Terrin Vavra should and will take some at-bats in his stead. Promoting outfielder Kyle Stowers, who’s OPS’ing .920 for Triple-A Norfolk right now, would also help. Jordan Westburg is slumping lately but still OPS’ing .815, while—less likely, but also deserved if we’re just going by the numbers—baseball’s No. 1 prospect Gunnar Henderson has a ridiculous .300 average, .427 OBP, and .973 OPS between Bowie and Norfolk this season at age 21.
The outfield is crowded, but down the stretch, an Orioles team trying to compete could still offer one or more of these prospects at-bats through platooning or creative use of the DH slot.
When it comes to pitching, the Orioles could use a little depth, and at this point, replacements will have to come from within the organization. After losing Jorge López to a trade, another back-end arm would be nice: Rico García has struggled with Baltimore, but his 2.25 ERA in 12 games with Norfolk means he should get another shot. Reliever Ryan Conroy (4-2, 3.54 ERA in 26 games for the Baysox and Tides) could be on the shortlist, too.
The Orioles’ starting rotation is truly overperforming (and has been all year), but here, too, some help would be nice, with the team in perpetual difficulty trying to keep a fifth starter: Bruce Zimmermann got demoted, Dean Kremer has been inconsistent, and Tyler Wells is nursing an injured side.
At this point, it’s clear who the Orioles would like to promote, but while the rehabbing Grayson Rodriguez is ahead of schedule, he’s only just started throwing off a mound this week, and DL Hall’s 5.66 BB/9 rate is just as sobering as his 14.66 K/9 rate is tempting. It is still possible we see a late promotion of either of the two, though.
After that, we get to names that aren’t clear improvements: Matt Harvey’s 5.74 ERA and Chris Vallimont’s 6.03 one aren’t begging for a call-up. We may, however, see the return of Mike Baumann (4.57 ERA in 16 games, and being stretched out as a starter lately) and/or Bruce Zimmermann, whose July and August ERAs of 3.79 and 3.60, respectively, are solid improvements.
Suffice it to say, the Orioles are already playing at an astonishing level of competence and productivity. To think they could better that with a few pitching reinforcements and if their offensive core can hold together is crazy. Not any crazier, though, than what we’ve seen from this team already.